Caravaggio to Dali: 100 Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, is internationally renowned for its quality, rarity, and beauty. Caravaggio to Dalí: 100 Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art presented a selection of the greatest European paintings and sculptures from this remarkable and historic collection. Ranging from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century, the exhibition featured major works by Caravaggio, Zurbarán, Hals, Goya, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Dalí, and many other outstanding figures.
Throughout its history, the Wadsworth Atheneum has reflected America’s cultural evolution—and on many occasions it has been in the vanguard of that evolution. During the tenure of its most celebrated director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr.—between 1927 and 1944—it presented the country’s first important Italian Baroque exhibition, the first Surrealist exhibition, the first comprehensive Picasso exhibition, and one of the early exhibitions of abstract art. It also became the first American museum to purchase works by Dalí and Mondrian. The exhibition brought its riches—long admired and coveted within the art world—to the broader audience they deserve.
Caravaggio to Dalí: 100 Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was a unique combination of two traveling exhibitions, Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The Kimbell’s presentation combined the exhibitions and bridged them with five additional works by Paul Cézanne, Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Auguste Renoir that were not seen elsewhere.
Commented Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is the oldest public art museum in the United States, and has a reputation second to none for brilliant collecting, ahead of its time and current taste. The best of its collections, as assembled in this exhibition, makes for an experience of sustained quality that very few museums in the United States can match.”
The exhibition featured a number of Renaissance works, including Sebastiano del Piombo’s striking 16th-century Portrait of a Man in Armor and many of the Wadsworth’s celebrated masterpieces of the Italian Baroque. Chick Austin began this collection when Baroque art was out of fashion and was able to acquire many outstanding paintings, such as Bernardo Strozzi’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the first authentic Caravaggio in an American museum—Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy. Spanish, French, Dutch, and Flemish paintings of the 17th century were also acquired during this time, including the great Claude Lorrain Saint George and the Dragon and unusual works of Michael Sweerts such as his dewy-eyed Boy with a Hat.
Austin’s successor, Charles Cunningham, built on this foundation and added some of the collection’s most notable treasures, such as Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion, Frans Hals’s Portrait of Joseph Coymans, Salvator Rosa’s Lucrezia as Poetry, and Orazio Gentileschi’s stunning Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. Other important works from the Wadsworth’s collection on view at the Kimbell included The Sense of Taste by the 17th-century Spanish master Jusepe de Ribera, and the gorgeous Portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac Wearing a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, painter to the 18th-century French court.
The 19th-century works in the exhibition, which were exclusive to the Kimbell showing, tell a compelling story of changing moods in French painting—from the sensuous exoticism of Delacroix to the Impressionists’ engagement with the fleeting effects of light and weather, to the more deliberate, structured picture-making of Cézanne. They included Monet’s The Boardwalk at Trouville, Renoir’s Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, and Cézanne’s Rustic House.
The exhibition also featured an array of works representing the major artistic movements of the 20th century. It mirrored a unique era in the history of American museum collecting, when aesthetically adventurous directors and curators struggled to make the case for modern art despite public prejudices and suspicions. The birth and continuation of modernism was a vital interest of the directors of the Wadsworth Atheneum in the mid-20th century, and they acquired and solicited works of great note to tell this amazing story. Almost half of the innovative modern works in this exhibition were purchased directly from the artists or from their first exhibitions. Among the most notable are Salvador Dalí’s frozen, cinematic dreamscape Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach and Pablo Picasso’s The Bather of 1922. Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were also featured, as well as sculptures by Aristide Maillol and Henry Moore.
While the Kimbell Art Museum is among the youngest of the great American art museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum is the oldest. Established in 1842, it is world renowned for its collection of nearly 50,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years, from antiquity to the present. The museum was founded by Daniel Wadsworth (a descendant of the family who journeyed on foot from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 to found Hartford and the Connecticut Colony), and named for the Athenaeum in ancient Rome, an institution of learning named in turn for Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.
Caravaggio to Dalí: 100 Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.
Caption: Orazio Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (detail), 1621–24, oil on canvas. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1949.52